The New Republic - April 6, 2020
I’m what one therapist called a “class-straddler,” which I prefer to “class-transitioner,” because the truth is, there’s never not a foot of mine planted firmly in Valley View, eating processed food, watching stolen cable, and going to stock car races. A PhD and multiple major-city addresses can never change that being poor is written in my blood and my bones as much as it is sung from my tight skirts and cheap lipstick.
So begins Rust Belt Femme, the new memoir from queer femme writer Raechel Anne Jolie, and quite possibly the first book that’s ever made me well up with tears within the first few pages. The memoir itself, which tells the story of Jolie’s youth and adolescence in one of Northeast Ohio’s dying industrial towns, isn’t overly weepy. Rather, the book summoned an instant and unexpected pang of recognition when I picked it up—the shock of finding a piece of myself greeting me in its pages. Save for some of the big details, it felt like Jolie’s story was my story, from her recollections of anarchist organizing projects and navigating the challenges of living with a severely disabled parent to her habit of using loud, aggressive music to cope, and her continual discomfort in “fancy” environments. That feeling is as rare as hen’s teeth for those who grew up the way I did: broke and rural and steeped in the cultural and class signifiers that mark me as “blue collar” or a “redneck” in America’s sociocultural hierarchies. And as is true for Jolie, this formative understanding of my own identity and place in the world stays with me decades after I left the woods and cleaned up my grammar, as if it’s something for which I—we—should feel shame.
I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood (shout out to the bookmobile that serviced my isolated community), and I’d always refused to accept that our stories weren’t worth telling, no matter what the rest of the world may have decided. There can never be enough written for and from the perspective of America’s working class, and lately we’ve seen an encouraging trickle of memoirs and essay collections from authors who are well acquainted with overdrawn bank accounts, precarious livelihoods, and empty stomachs. With her memoir, Jolie joins a small coterie of notable white working-class writers like Sarah Smarsh, Linda Tirado, Stephanie Land, Tara Westover, and (in a far more limited compass) J.D. Vance—chroniclers of life at the margins who ground their memories and experiences within the broader sociopolitical context of being a certain kind of broke in America.
Jolie’s tale begins in a working-class suburb outside Cleveland, when her father is grievously injured in a car accident, a tragedy that sets into motion a series of events that sounds all too familiar to those who grew up in similar circumstances—the grinding poverty, the house that smells of cat piss, her mother’s string of unsuitable boyfriends, a traumatizing experience with sexual assault. A pair of generous grandparents added a measure of stability and comfort in her childhood years, a privilege she readily acknowledges in hindsight. But throughout the book, our narrator is constantly on the hunt for protection and safety.
She tries to find this elusive state of security in her family and in the arms of various boyfriends, but after a few false starts (and run-ins with various snobbish punk rock gatekeepers), Jolie eventually finds her place among Cleveland’s artsy, witchy ’90s alternative scene. She settles into her own queer identity and finds a new kind of home, but the road leading there is anything but easy, pocked with many varieties of working-class heartbreak. Her story is both remarkable and utterly ordinary; any dreamy kid who grew up broke and weird will see a spark of themselves in this book, which is also why it’s so important.
The term “white working class” itself is a political fiction meant to carve out white workers as an exception to the strains and stresses of working-class experience, permitting certain self-appointed defenders of their alleged cultural birthright to pretend that their needs and concerns are somehow distinct from those of other workers. Jolie cuts through the noise by referring to herself and her family as “white trash”—another phrase with a complex and visceral political history. That history was brilliantly elucidated in 2016 in Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, before the media elite and a newly influential white nationalist pundit class alike seized upon the rhetoric of white working-class exclusion as a rationale for Donald Trump’s bogus calling card as a populist political leader. Jolie adopts Dolly Parton as her muse as she finds gradual recognition within Cleveland’s queer femme community; she describes this particular state of trashiness as a rejection of respectability, a beautiful sort of grotesquerie that is “overabundant in everything but cash.” She pays tribute to the big hair and loud voices of the women who raised her, and to her own defiant penchant for spangles and high heels. Her use of “white trash”—like the kindred adoption of “queer” in LGBTQ+ activist circles—is a reclamation of identity through a term long employed as a stigma, even if it may potentially provoke some outrage from within the broader community she’s describing.
The stories of the white working class and those of other folks living in poverty don’t always overlap, but oftentimes—and especially in this cruel country—they are one and the same. Writers like Jolie make the universal quality of such struggles resonate powerfully for their readers by describing how rapidly a brief respite of comfort can plunge into hopeless despair. As she recounts it, her sense of well-being as she came of age depended entirely upon the dates on the calendar between her family’s last paycheck and next rent payment—and could evaporate entirely in the wake of an unexpected financial hit. Jolie, describing a lecture she gave on the spatial and temporal nature of class to her own students at the University of Minnesota, writes, “My mom lives in a trailer in Ohio now, she’s on welfare, but a long time she wasn’t, but before that we were.” She continues, “My grandparents were fine though. And so that’s one reason I’m here—because for a period we had enough money to not be on welfare, and because when my mom didn’t have the money, my grandparents gave me a $500 check to reserve a dorm room.” ...
Read full review at The New Republic